Chrome: Books, Boxes, Bases, and Bits

During the current school year, Cabell County Schools has begun to implement Chromebooks into English/Language Arts (ELA) and Health classrooms. These devices have always been a bit of a “no-go” for me as a Technology Integration Specialist (TIS). The main reason why is that the build quality has not been that great on most of the ChromeOS devices; leading to a very short expected lifespan in classroom settings. Through this process of adoption, I have forced myself to become more and more familiar with the devices and have made some interesting discoveries in that work.

Initially my limited exposure to ChromeOS devices was based on the reviews that I had read or watched online from reputable technology sources (Engadget, CNet, etc.). Examining the build quality of several of these devices and seeing their use first hand has changed my mindset on them a bit (so much so that I am typing this blog post on an ASUS C300MA Chromebook). I wanted to write this post in order to outline some of the observations that I have made thus far.

    1. ChromeOS is fast! Even when running on limited hardware (lower end processors and small amounts of RAM). The OS boots in less than 10 seconds and logins are almost immediate. This is a huge point for schools. Logging in on Windows and Mac devices can take a bit of time away from your instructional time with your students. Web browsing (which in essence is all you are doing on a Chromebook) is usually really fast and even having multiple tabs open doesn’t slow things down too much.  The units we are using in our schools (Samsung Chromebook 2, Lenovo N21, and Dell Chromebook 11) are all units with 2 GB of RAM and do well, but if you continually open tabs (say 20 or more) you will really start to see the slow-down in the OS.
    2. ChromeOS still lets you use an Office 365 subscription easily. The West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) has provided Office 365 for all employees and students in the state of West Virginia. This entitles each of these users with 1TB of storage on OneDrive, 5 installs of the current  version of Microsoft Office for PC or Mac, 5 installs on tablet or mobile devices, and 50 GB of e-mail storage. Users also have access to the online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. This makes it really easy for users to still access their documents, presentation, etc. from the Chromebook and still be able to edit them without having to switch to Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, etc (Not that there is anything wrong with Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, etc.; Microsoft Office is just considered the industry standard at this time.) The online versions of the Microsoft programs also allow for real-time collaboration on documents, presentations, etc. in the files saved on OneDrive (this functionality is already in Office 2016 for the Mac and is coming in Office 2016 for the PC soon).
    3. If you can surf the web, you can easily use and manage a ChromeOS device. The Chrome web browser has become the most used web browser in the world in recent years (source). Extensions can be installed into the browser to add functionality to meet the individual user’s needs. For example, I have installed an extension that allows me to access my recent files stored in OneDrive directly from the toolbar in the browser. Another is Snagit by Techsmith that allows me to do some quick and easy screen captures in the browser.
    4. If you use the Chrome web browser already, you’re set to use ChromeOS. Since the entire ChromeOS is built on the Chrome web browser, you are in a good position for easy adoption. When signed in on the web browser with a Google account, it will sync your bookmarks and settings across your devices. This makes it very easy to move to ChromeOS because it will sync all of this information from your other devices using the Chrome web browser and have them ready to go for you on your new ChromeOS device. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy!

These four points alone have helped changed my mind about ChromeOS devices in schools. There is still one major hangup with most of these devices though; build quality. This has been, perhaps, the biggest point of contention for most schools and reviewers. Overall, the devices that I have used have been very good in their build quality, but each has it’s own hangups that should be noted. For example, the Lenovo N21 devices have a webcam that is rotatable from front-facing to rear-facing. This camera, according to reviews and comments online, tend to break off when the device isn’t handled properly. This model also has an issue with keyboard keys popping loose or off completely.

The best advice that I can give to anyone considering a ChromeOS device for themselves or for a large school-level roll out, is to look into real-world use cases before making decisions. Reach out to other individuals that you know who have used the devices. Get their input on what they liked and didn’t like. If you’re looking at this from a school or district-level perspective, do the same. Reach out to others and see what has worked and what hasn’t. The key point is to make sure you are getting what you expect and not ending up with something that doesn’t meet the needs you have.

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